How did we get to this place we find ourselves in K-12 schools with children divided into “oppressors” and “oppressed” groups? Segregated into “safe spaces” for children “of color” and those who are not? Forced to do “privilege walks” to determine if they have “white privilege” or “male privilege” or “Christian privilege” or not?
To understand, we have to not only follow the money, but also the books. Like with all ideas —good or bad —through the history of time, there is a publishing industry that pumps out the books that promote the ideas. Like with all ideological movements, we have to understand the texts that are the underpinnings for these ideas.
Just like we have a concept of “money laundering” that washes money through various cycles until it is “clean,” there is a phenomenon that one parent calls “idea laundering,” with the ideas of critical race theory trickling down from academic books for law schools to picture books for kindergartners and toddlers.
At Parents Defending Education, we’ve studied and read these books and we share them with you as a work-in-progress. Please send us a tip about a book that we may have missed, and we will study it to possibly add to our list.
The foundations of “critical race theory”
1960s and 1970s: Class warfare as a precursor to critical race theory
- The Little Red Book: Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (published 1964 through 1976)
The quotes and speeches of Mao Tse-Tung, the former Chairman of the Communist Party of China, chronicle his ideas for how people are divided by class, central tenets behind the oppressive Cultural Revolution that killed millions of Chinese people based on their place in society.
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970)
The book was first published in Portuguese in 1968, and translated and published in English in 1970. The books promotional material says, “Paulo Freire’s work has helped to empower countless people throughout the world and has taken on special urgency in the United States and Western Europe, where the creation of a permanent underclass among the underprivileged and minorities in cities and urban centers is ongoing.” It is the central thesis of trainings that divide people into the “oppressed” and “oppressors.”
1990s: Origin story of critical race theory
- Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992)
Then a professor of law at Harvard University, Derrick Bell, is the original founder of critical race theory, arguing that it is critical to view society through the lens of race. His students furthered his mission.
- Critical Race Theory (1996)
The authors are some of the architects of critical race theory. Kimberlé Crenshaw is a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia School of Law in New York. Neil Gotanda is a professor of law at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, California. Gary Peller is a professor of law at Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C. Kendall Thomas is a professor of law at Columbia School of Law in New York.
Critical race theory in education
- Critical Race Theory in Education (2006)
Author Gloria Ladson-Billings is professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an architect of bringing critical race theory into K-12 schools through a pedagogy she created, called, “culturally relevant pedagogy,” or “culturally responsive education.” Her books include Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Asking a Different Question
Critical race theory translated for adults
- How to Be an Antiracist (2019) by Ibram X. Kendi
- Workbook for How to be an Antiracist (June 27, 2020)
- Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent (Aug. 4, 2020) by Isabelle Wilkerson
Critical race theory trickling down to kids
- A is for Activist (2013) by Innosanto Nagara
In its promotional material, the book’s publisher, Triangle Square, says the board book is intended to help children be “unapologetic about activism.”
In February 2017, Oakland Public Library in Northern California included the book in “a #BlackLivesMatter Resource Series,” for “parents, caregivers & educators.”
In June 2020, the Atlantis School for Gifted Youngsters coproduced a “Story Time,” featuring a reading of the book, and posted the video on YouTube.
In August 2021, parents expressed concern about the book being promoted in a lesson plan published on a Virginia Department of Education platform, GoOpenVa, by a group of Chesapeake Public Schools teachers. They included having students watch a YouTube reading of the book.
As of December 2021, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Learning for Justice” curriculum program for an “Art and Community Activism” lesson for K through grade five students included A is for Activist among a list of “children’s books that may be helpful in discussing the themes of the lesson.” The lesson is used by school districts around the country.
The Southern Oregon Education Service District also listed the book as a resource for teachers and families.
The publisher, Penguin Random House, writes:
This bestselling ABC book is written and illustrated for the next generation of progressives: families who want their kids to grow up in a space that is unapologetic about activism, environmental justice, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and everything else that activists believe in and fight for. A continuous bestseller for Triangle Square, we heard from booksellers around the country who clamored for a large format edition that would appeal to children over the age of 5. This engaging book carries huge messages as it inspires hope for the future, and calls children and parents to action.
- Woke Baby (2018) by Mahogany L. Browne (author) and Theodore Taylor III (illustrator)
In May 2020, a local city councilman read Woke Baby on the Facebook page of the Central Falls School District, located in Central Falls, Rhode Island. District 65 in Evanston, Illinois, included the book in 2020 in its recommend “Kindergarten curriculum.” (The list also included Black Lives Mater at School Coloring Book.)
In June 2021, Westerville Public Library in Westerville, Ohio, posted a video by a librarian recommending the board book “ideal for older babies and toddlers.” Another YouTube channel featured a reading. A mother in Texas expressed concern that the book was on a list of recommended reading in her son’s school. In late July 2021, the author curated a “Woke Baby Book Fair” at the Lincoln Center, where she was the center’s first poet-in-residence. As of Dec. 15, 2021, Walmart and Target sold the book.
- Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (2018)
In 2020, Lower Merion Schools in Pennyslvania included the children’s book, “Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness,” by Anastacia Higginbotham in its classroom teaching. A whistleblower contacted the Pennsylvania Office of Civil Rights with a complaint about the book.
The book includes the message: “Whiteness is a bad idea.” It also notes: “Innocence is overrated.”
In a spreadsheet he shared in July 2021, journalist Christopher Rufo documented at least 36 public school districts in 12 states, from San Rafael, Calif., to Needham, Mass., with Not My Idea read or recommended to its students.
- This Book is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work (Jan. 7, 2020) by Tiffany Jewell
In 2021, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland purchased this book for students and staff. As of Dec. 15, 2021, schools such as Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington Public Schools, Virginia recommended the book in its list of “Anti-Racist Teaching Resources.”
- Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You (“A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning”) by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds (March 10, 2020)
In 2021, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland purchased copies of this book for its students.
- Antiracist Baby (July 14, 2020) by Ibram X. Kendi
On July 16, 2020, a local Montgomery County, Maryland, councilman read Antiracist Baby with Kendi at a virtual “kid’s town hall and parent discussion.” The event was “in collaboration” with Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland’s largest county in a suburb of Washington, D.C.
In an email sent on Aug. 26, 2020, Montgomery County Public Schools recommended Antiracist Baby to teach elementary school students “some facts about racism and social justice,” according to a copy of a PowerPoint presentation on “psychoeducational” learning for students during the pandemic. It listed the book as appropriate for children as young as six, from first to five grades.
The email included a link to the reading on YouTube.
In April 2021, Corlears School, a private school in New York City, held an event, “Raising Our Babies to Value Anti-Racism,” in which the director of equity said, ““This event will examine how our Early Childhood teachers are unpacking Ibram X Kendi’s board book: ‘Anti-Racist Baby’ and how they are curating classrooms and curriculum with an anti-racist lens.”
As of Dec. 15, 2021, schools such as Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington Public Schools, Virginia recommended the book in its list of “Anti-Racist Teaching Resources.”
- How to Be an Antiracist Family: 25 Inspiring Tales about Racism to be Read Together with the Kids (Sept. 1, 2020) by Martin Sekkat
- Race Cars: A children’s book about white privilege (May 4, 2021) by Jenny Devenny
In January 2021, the publisher, Quarto Knows, posted a book trailer on YouTube, noting, “It is never too early to start talking about racism. Start now.”
In January 2021, a librarian in Ontario, Canada, posted a photo of the book on Twitter after the book was read to fourth graders, and another Ontario teacher posted the book being read to kindergartners. The next month, in February 2021, a teacher in Toronto, Canada, posted a message on Twitter about reading the book to her students, writing: “This week, we’re looking closely at privilege and power. We are asking questions: what is white privilege? What does it mean to be an ally? We read the book Race Cars. It helped us understand how racism operates.” In November 2021, a mother in Minnesota reported the book sent home with her seven-year-old child in Minnesota.
- Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You by adapter Sonja Cherry-Paul, authors Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi and illustrator Rachelle Baker (May 11, 2021)
This is an adaptation from the book of essentially the same title for adults, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.
Gender theory and queer theory: critical race theory translated to gender and sexuality
- 642 Things to Write About (April 11, 2012)
This book was used as a guide for writing prompts for high schoolers. It includes a prompt for students to describe a sex scene that they would not show to their mother. A follow-up prompt tells them to write a version of the same sex scene they would show to to their mother.
- I Am Jazz (Sept. 4, 2014) by Jessica Herthel
The book chronicles the real-life story of Jazz Jennings, who became an activist for “transkids everywhere,” according to the book’s promotional material.
- Lawn Boy (March 19, 2019) by Jonathon Evison
- Gender Queer: A Memoir (May 28, 2019) by Maia Kobabe
- Call Me Max (Oct. 14, 2019) by Kyle Lukoff
In March 2021, a teacher in Eanes Independent School District in Austin, Texas, read Call Me Max to fourth graders at Forest Trail Elementary School, sparking complaints from parents. The school district sent an email to parents, acknowledging the book was featured in a list that was not “appropriately reviewed.”
The district said:
“The particular topic of the book (gender identity) is understandably sensitive and personally important to many families. In time, the subject of gender identity may be addressed instructionally – but only with proper caution and prior parent awareness. We recognize, while we have always tried to create a climate where all children feel they belong, we also have to be aware of the maturity level of children in the classroom regarding sensitive topics.”
“We plan to use this as an opportunity to reinforce to our staff the need to implement instructional, age- and developmentally appropriate safeguards to prevent further occurrences such as this without prior oversight and parental knowledge.”
In June 2021, Edmonds School District No. 15 in Edmonds, Washington, featured a read aloud of the book on Facebook by an elementary teacher. The message ended, “Enjoy!”
- All Boys Aren’t Blue: A MEMOIR MANIFESTO (April 28, 2020) by George M. Johnson